squash me, squeeze me

During massage school my husband and I had a joke. “How’s your corrugator supercilii?” I would ask him after class. “Uh, I don’t know. You tell me,” he would oblige. I would then teach him about a funny little muscle with a really long name that moves the eyebrows. He has the most expressive eyebrows of anyone I know. (This feature has been passed on to our son, by the way.) The joke was a simple formula by which I could share a little obscure fact I found amazing about the body.

Which brings me to mechanoreceptors. “How are yours?” (want to play along?)

I loved learning about mechanoreceptors. They are sensory cells flung far and wide in the body which enable us to feel things like pressure. Their cousins allow us to feel heat, cold, degree of stretch, and where our limbs are in relation to our bodies. Distant cousins report to the brain taste, sound, light…you get the picture? All of these specialized receptors can also function as nociceptors – the guys who report pain. Too much pressure, cold or sound can all translate into pain.

Mechanoreceptors are found all over the body. Again, they register light touch, medium and deep pressure, vibration, stretch, even itch. The cells are found at different depths of the skin and fascia and are nestled inside tendons, ligaments and muscles. Clearly I’m a geek in writing about this, but I find it fascinating. Massage is all about stimulating these mechanoreceptor cells to fire like crazy at the brain. As I massage a super tight shoulder, kneading, tugging, and squeezing it, what I’m really doing is deforming these cells by mechanical pressure. And, unless I go too deep, too fast, the brain eats it up. “I’ll give you an hour to stop doing that!”

Have you ever remarked how good, how relaxing it feels to have your stylist or barber touch your hair, lift it, comb it, fluff it? Mechanoreceptors in action, baby! Each hair follicle has not only a nerve, but a muscle attached to it. Although we lose hair as we age, that’s still a lot of stimulus to the brain. It gives in and just relaxes. ~Sigh~ Cut off a few inches, I don’t care…

Sensory receptors have another trick up their sleeve. The concentration of sensory nerves varies throughout the body. Places like the fingertips and tip of the tongue are high density, like Tokyo or Mexico City. On the back of the leg the brain cannot distinguish 2 points of contact up to 2 inches apart as unique. They feel like the same point. Think Montana or Utah perhaps. The nervous system splurges in some places and cuts corners in Utah.

So, next time you get a massage think for a moment of what’s happening on a cellular level. Before you drift into la-la land, appreciate the nervous system feedback loop that can distinguish so many different stimuli, assigning each its importance appropriately. Truly amazing!


the accidental tanner

If my allergies indicate anything, spring is in full force here in Southern California and summer is peeking around the corner. Everything is blooming, buzzing, and heating up. Over the weekend, the co-housing community I live in held its annual spring clean retreat. We have 3 retreats a year and the theme for our spring retreat is deep cleaning. Working alongside great neighbors is the only way cleaning is fun in my opinion.

For someone who works indoors in a dimly lit room, a spring clean day can present the opportunity for an accidental tan. Tanning is the old fashioned term for exposure to ultraviolet radiation. It does sound better. In the relatively short span of my lifetime to date, Americans have gone from sun-foolish to sun-phobic as we’ve learned of the ill affects of ultraviolet radiation. In all things there must be a balance, for we do, in fact, need the sun’s rays for our health. But, having said that, we must also be sure to protect ourselves and our kids from overexposure. This post won’t be about sunscreen products, although I’ve provided a link for more info on sunscreen below. Rather, it will be about skin cancer awareness and what to look for on our skin. Massage therapists are in a great position to aid people in keeping an eye on the skin as we see quite a lot of it. I have asked clients on several occasions about a spot I noticed or encouraged them to get something checked out if it looked suspicious.

So, what do we look for when we scan the body for skin cancer? Here are some pointers:

Sores on the skin that do not heal. This is very important. Sores that don’t heal are a big indicator of precancerous lesions, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Often a crust or scab forms, flakes off and forms again. But the sore never fully heals. This is a very important warming sign that should be brought to the attention of a doctor immediately. While basal cell carcinoma does not metastasize, squamous cell carcinoma does. The longer it is undiagnosed, the greater chance the cancer has of penetrating to deeper layers of the skin and reaching the lymphatic system where it can travel to other parts of the body. Don’t mess around with this!

Another type of skin cancer is malignant melanoma. It is the least common of skin cancers, but is responsible for 75% of the deaths associated with skin cancer. It can metastasize and can do so quickly. Here are some things to look for:

A = Asymmetry: the mole or spot is not symmetrical.

B = Border irregularity: the mole or spot has an irregularly shaped border or an indistinct border, blending in with the skin.

C = Color: the mole or spot has more than one shade or color. Colors can be black, brown, tan white, red, purple or even blue.

D = Diameter: the mole or spot is larger than the size of a pencil eraser.

E = Elevated: the mole or spot is elevated or partially elevated compared to the surrounding skin.

There’s another guideline called “the ugly duckling,” meaning that some melanomas don’t follow the standard ABCDE categorization but are different compared to the person’s other moles. My husband chimed in that these could be labeled F for Freaky! These “ugly ducklings” should also be examined by a doctor.

There is much more to skin cancer awareness. But these are some basic things to look for. Scanning yourself and other family members regularly is a great way to keep an eye on things that can be further investigated by a dermatologist. When in doubt, get it checked out by the doctor. As with other cancers, early detection and treatment is very important. Exposure to the sun has a cumulative effect, with lots of exposure occurring when we are kids. Kids should play outside. Let’s make sure they are protected. One resource I read for this post stated that melanomas rarely occur in young people, so any large moles that develop after adolescence are highly suspect.

Here are some resources for further information:




Here’s an interesting website I found with an article on sunscreen products:


So, with that, please enjoy the sun responsibly. Happy spring!

Note: Information offered in this blog should not be construed as individual medical advice. Please see your doctor with any questions you have about skin cancer and all other medical/health issues. Cancer is a huge topic; this post offers basic, introductory information and should not be seen as a definitive treatment of the topic. I referred to the following text for some of the information presented here: Werner, Ruth, A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology, Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 1998.

one bad ear…

Well, let’s just say I spoke too soon about the car getting fixed. It’s back in the shop. Might be time to upgrade to a newer, used car. The car in question is a humble 1989 Nissan Stanza. Hmmm….  Luckily we have another car. Our back-up car is a 1988 Volvo. When riding around in that one today, something my dad used to say came to mind.

Dad used to say he had one bad ear and one rotten ear. Then he lost the hearing in his bad ear.

Under the Hood

With recent car repairs on my mind, I’ve been reflecting on a statement I’ve had on my massage brochure for years. “A lot of us walk around in our bodies the way we drive around in our cars – without a clue how they work and only paying attention when they break.”

When my car broke down in Quartzsite, AZ and I popped the hood up, I had a familiar feeling of dismay looking at the mystery under the hood. Although I can name a few parts, I must admit I really don’t know how the engine works or which of the million pieces of the puzzle could be causing problems. When we do need a repair it’s often some obscure part I’ve never even heard of that’s the root of the problem. How many dang parts are there anyway?

My favorite parallel in terms of the body is connective tissue. How many people know what connective tissue is and how it functions? Probably not many. We all know the names of muscles, bones, and organs in our bodies. Sometimes we become quite an expert on one part of the body, if only temporarily, when we have a break, sprain, or illness profoundly affecting it. Just like in a car, we can, through an injury, become downright amazed at the importance of a small part of the body when it’s on strike or out of commission. Yes, we are connected “under the hood” in ways we’ll never fully appreciate.

So what is connective tissue? It’s a tissue type in the body that binds everything together, holds everything in its proper location and does a lot of other groovy things. Both blood and bone are in the connective tissue family. Ligaments, tendons and even scar tissue are connective tissue. Connective tissue varies in substance depending on it’s molecular composition. In terms of massage’s impact on the body, I focus more on the spectrum of connective tissue that includes ligaments, tendons, and fascia. Clearly ligaments and tendons help stabilize muscles to bones and aid in keeping the integrity of joints. Fascia is a close cousin. One way to think of it is as a web that encapsulates each organ, each muscle, each nerve fiber. Fascia has a Saran Wrap type function in the body; it shrinks to fit our common posture and movement patterns. Here’s what some smart people say about the importance of connective tissue.

The muscle-bone concept presented in standard anatomical description gives a purely mechanical model of movement. It separates movement into discrete functions, failing to give a picture of the seamless integration seen in a living body. When one part moves, the body as a whole responds. Functionally, the only tissue that can mediate such responsiveness is the connective tissue. Schultz, L, Reitis R. The endless web. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books; 1996: vii.

Reminds me of what Obi-Wan Kenobi said of The Force. “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” (movie IV) I won’t try to draw an analogy here because I’ll fail. But I love Alec Guinness’ voice. What a Jedi! (from a more civilized time…)

So, why is it important? As we age, we naturally lose some of our flexibility as the molecular composition of our connective tissue changes. If you’re engaged in some sort of activity that encourages continued flexibility, that’s great (yoga, Pilates, stretching). If you’re not, you will lose some degree of flexibility. Massage includes both intentional stretching and the natural stretching of tissue that occurs because you’re manipulating it. Getting a massage is the lazy person’s way of stretching. If stretching isn’t usually included in your massage session, ask for some. It feels great to have your limbs moved through a full range of motion.

Aside from the aging process, connective tissue is important to engage because of its “shrink-to-fit” quality. If you slump in front of a computer 40+ hours a week, chances are pretty good that your connective tissue binds you in that posture to some degree. You may not feel it at 23 years old, but you probably will at 43, 53 and 73. It will be harder to stretch your arms back behind you, open the chest with a deep breath, and fully extend your neck. Decreased range of motion or ease in movement can lead to injuries, especially when you engage in an activity you’re not accustomed to, like lifting furniture during a move, playing volleyball at a family reunion or  roughhousing with your grandchild. I ask my clients about weekly activities to discover clues about how posture patterns might need to be counteracted. I pay close attention to this in my clients because I want them to have ease in their bodies, not strain.

So there’s a little primer on a piece of the puzzle “under your hood.” And it didn’t cost you $438 like my latest education on a part in my car did. You’re welcome.